SOMALIREN driving transformation through research and education networking innovation

The year 1975 was a pivotal period in the development of the Somali people. The Somali literacy campaign was concluded successfully with an astounding impact on the lives of the people, the economic development and the Somali identity. However, the lessons learned from the planning and execution of this campaign are of critical value today as the whole world aspires to be digitally literate. There is no doubt that digital literacy is a key determinant of the economic development of information societies today. The improved access to information has a direct, positive impact on the economic well-being of societies, and access to information today is enabled by digital technologies. SomaliREN, has since its formation in 2009 has empowered the Somali higher education and research institutions to develop the technological capabilities that will lead to the next literacy tipping point.

Bootstrapped by the ICT Sector Support project funded by the World Bank Group, SomaliREN has launched its connectivity services in June 2018 and within a relatively short time-span has come up with initiatives aimed at harnessing the connectivity infrastructure and the organization’s technical capabilities to address the most pressing challenges in the Somali higher education and research sector. From the limited access to research and education resources by the students and faculty to the exorbitant bandwidth prices in the country to insufficient availability of qualified professors and lecturers in the science and technology-related disciplines, the connectivity and network infrastructure already deployed by SomaliREN is enabling innovative sustainable solutions. One such initiative envisaged finding a lasting solution to financing the already subsidized international bandwidth costs has created additional opportunities for all the involved stakeholders.

SomaliREN has introduced the EduSpot project to further bring down the cost of connectivity while improving access to both the international connectivity and local content (produced by the local institutions or locally-hosted content from partner institutions). The project specifically aims to deploy ‘educational hotspots’ at locations densely populated by the students and faculty of the universities, provide federated identity services which allow each of the member institutions to provide identity authentication for their respective students and staff members, and promote the curation and production of local educational and research content. SomaliREN considers EduSpot as a precursor to the rollout of eduroam service for the benefit of its communities. Secondary goals of the project that tab into the myriad of opportunities created from its implementation and operation include driving bandwidth consumption by the member institutions as a direct result of the reduced bandwidth costs, which in itself is a self-fulling prophecy as the increased bandwidth consumption leads to lower bandwidth costs taking advantage of the increased volume purchase of capacity. The EduSpot project will also create opportunities for developing the ICT skills and technical competencies of the students and graduates as the operation and maintenance of the EduSpot network and services require human resources that are capable of fulfilling this task. Once the pilot project is complete, the project plans to put into effect a 6-month long internship program for ICT and telecommunications engineering graduates who will be accepted through a rigorous selection process.

While the project is still in the pilot stage, the goal is to expand the coverage of the hotspots by taking a distributed approach to its operation and administration. Students residing in the most densely populated districts will soon not only be able to access connectivity and other services at the campus but while at their homes. SomaliREN is now looking into approaches for identifying and measuring the actual impact this service might have on the students’ academic performance and job-readiness.

The NREN is now 21 member institutions strong and has completed the rollout of one of its planned three network segments which now connects 35 campuses of 9 member institutions. As a result of the fast-growth of the organization and its network, as well as the continuous efforts to innovate for the Somali higher education and research communities, SomaliREN has recently been recognized as the best emerging research and education networking organization in the UbuntuNet Alliance region.

Other initiatives that have been designed to address the challenges faced by the Somali education and research institutions include REConnexion project, an innovative simple idea with a significant potential to help the Somali universities connect with a large pool of Somali diaspora and expatriate professors, research supervisors, and intellectuals, which will help reverse the brain drain that resulted from years of prolonged conflict. Short for Research and Education Connection, REConnexion aims to serve as a matching platform for the universities and the qualified professors who can contribute to these institutions using the connectivity infrastructure and video-conferencing solutions provided by SomaliREN.

The innovative approach and lean organizational model adopted by SomaliREN have enabled it to efficiently and effectively exploit the support by the World Bank Group and is set to serve as a success story after which others can model their development.

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